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For the past few months, thanks largely to the documentary Leaving Neverland, the discussion on Michael Jackson has centered around whether the late pop superstar deserves a more critical reexamination due to multiple allegations of child sexual abuse.
But how did the singer, who was up to his ears in debt around the turn of the century and suffering from many stains on his reputation, rehabilitate himself in the first place? And who deserves a chunk of the billions of dollars in spoils from what was collected in the aftermath of the King of Pop’s fateful overdose on propofol at age 50 on June 25, 2009?
This coming Tuesday, nearly a decade after Jackson’s death, a trial is scheduled to begin that will explore the singer’s final, strange days, and in particular, his relationship with Tohme Tohme, a mysterious man who came into Jackson’s life in 2008 boasting of connections throughout the Arab world.
In Tohme’s lawsuit, filed all the way back in 2012 — so long ago that it’s understandable that this legal dispute has slipped off almost everyone’s radar — he alleges providing the necessary “advice, guidance and skillful work” to improve Jackson’s public image, alleviate the singer’s financial situation and put his client in a position to make a final tour.
Tohme continues to allege that the Michael Jackson Estate owes him a 15 percent commission on compensation that Jackson received during his last year on Earth and also wants a cut of revenues relating to This Is It, the concert film that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. Finally, he’s seeking a finder’s fee for securing a loan that prevented foreclosure on Jackson’s beloved Neverland Ranch home.
As Jackson’s manager, under a services agreement, Tohme got a $35,000 monthly fee on top of a 15 percent commission, and it’s the position of the Michael Jackson Estate that the agreement was properly terminated before Jackson’s death. The defendant has also presented the service agreement as being unconscionable and has alleged in its own claims against Tohme that in securing a very lucrative financial package for himself, the ex-manager breached his fiduciary duties and stole money from the singer.
The trial is being split into two phases.
The first will be contractual interpretation. Tohme is hoping to bring experts to the witness stand to testify that post-termination commissions are customary in the entertainment industry. If Tohme did the groundwork for This Is It, he believes he’s entitled to 15 percent as any agent or manager would get even after being fired. The Michael Jackson Estate responds that the plain language of the agreement is what counts — and that customs and practices are irrelevant.
The second may get into the nitty-gritty of the relationship between Jackson and Tohme — for instance, whether or not Jackson actually fired Tohme is a point of controversy among the parties and something that would be dealt with if necessary at the later stage. Tohme alleges that he only took 15 percent after Jackson proposed becoming 50/50 partners.
The trial will have some very notable witnesses, including Jackson’s mother, Katherine, his brother Jermaine, top agents and lawyers in the entertainment industry and Thomas Barrack Jr., the Donald Trump confidant whose Colony Capital spared Jackson from being evicted from Neverland after buying the loan on the property.
The sex abuse allegations may not figure prominently but could get at least some sideways attention.
Tohme wants to spill the beans on the percentage of revenue paid as compensation to John Branca and John McClain, the co-executors of the Michael Jackson Estate. Having allegedly done things like working on Jackson’s image, handling licensing requests and settling the singer’s dispute with Sheikh Abdullah of Bahrain, Tohme believes his work is comparable to Branca’s and McClain’s work, so the evidence of their compensation goes to the reasonableness of his own.
This could open up a discussion of how both sides have respectively served Jackson’s legacy. Branca and McClain — both scheduled to testify as well — object to the notion that there are parallels and say that if necessary they’d discuss the differences.
A final status conference is set for Monday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark A. Young will make final evidentiary rulings and gauge each side’s preparedness to begin. It’s possible that after seven years, the judge may see reason to delay once again, but the trial will likely commence quite soon and add to the story of the much discussed entertainment figure that is Michael Jackson.
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